Published online by Cambridge University Press: 05 February 2021
Manuscripts shed light to another contextual aspect of medieval book ownership: movement of manuscripts. In their owner's backpack, on wagons, and in boats: medieval books were keen travellers. With them they carried texts and ideas across Europe, disseminating the sciences, spreading romances, and passing on historical narratives. Short texts may have moved from A to B because they were committed to memory, by troubadours, for example, but longer texts more likely travelled in the guise of ink on a parchment or paper page. Texts that were made for travel were often fitted in special bindings, as Figure 116 shows (more about this manuscript in a moment). If a book was not going very far, its reader may even carry it on his or her body, like the girdle book in Figure 107 at p. 207, which belonged to Queen Anne Boleyn, the second wife of Henry VIII. The tiny manuscript contains the Psalms in English in the translation of John Croke and features a stern-looking Henry. But what if a movable book is not secured in a typical portable binding? What other clues are there to indicate that a medieval text had been on the move? This chapter takes a closer look at the transportation of books in the Middle Ages.
Occasionally we get glimpses into the transportation of books and the rationale behind it. Court records show, for example, that when in 1423 a boat with commercial goods was seized in Nice, a batch of paper prayer books was among the confiscated items. When in 1334 war broke out near the city of Affligem, the Benedictine monks had to flee and their books became travellers, as reported by the fourteenth-century Middle Dutch author Jan van Boendale: “Then the monks took their belongings, their books and relics, and left their beautiful abbey, to go and live in Brussels” (“Die moencke haer goet [eigendommen] doe namen, / Haer boeke ende haer reliquien tsamen, / Ende lieten den cloester scoene / Ende maecten te Brusele hare wone”).
Remarkably, while it must have been quite normal for books to physically move between monastic communities, cities, and even countries, the phenomenon is almost completely hidden from our sight. The only pronounced evidence we have are book formats and bindings that were specially designed for portability